Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The street

You say street, and right away East St. Louis rises up--
my period started there, my serial falling in love.
My dog was run over on that street
but the eminent milestones of my life--
did not happen here, they turned up on other streets. 
This is the street where I first encountered perverts, 
where my mother beat me when a boy 
walked me home, 
where my father was always glaring,
no matter what he was up to--shaving, 
planting sunflowers, breathing--he glared. 
I think he hated me. 
Otherwise it was an ordinary street.
Yet I remember it more easily than the venerable 
streets that followed.  
The scent of soft tar. 
Racing Tommy to the Notre Dame locker room. 
The football team's moist, slabs of muscle. 
A joyful Saturday in Theresa's grandmother's attic. 
She found a suitcase packed with holy cards 
and shared them 50-50. 
I laughed a lot on that street. Almost every day. 
My little dog was run over there. 
I know I said that but it keeps coming back. 
After school, I had to walk past the ice cream store
but never had the money to buy a cone.
It wasn’t a street where I had all I wanted 
but when I walked it, I expected to have it all someday.
I fully believed I would become the Elvis 
of my generation.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


She sings that song to me again, in German
( I’d rather be alone but I listen)
about a boy who begs his mamma for a horse
(Mamatschi, shenk mir ein Pferdchen)
Mamatschi, a pony would be my paradise.

Her voice scales the ceiling, trilling:

One day there stood four jeweled mares 
before the house

--and here she comes apart, 
her voice on the floor in pieces: 

Oh Mamatschi, funeral horses I did not want!

My mother, that ungifted singer, 
that unbashful lover of sappy songs.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

I'm listening

Come, she rolls her eyes toward her bedroom
and shuts the door.
We sit side by side on the bed and I sink 
into her force and fold my hands in my lap. 
My mother wants to talk about the war again
away from my father’s ears.
Today it’s Bucharest where a gypsy unfolds
my mother’s palms on the table and reads 
each line as if it were a highway with a clear 
white line straight into the future.
You will marry a foreigner, you will never be happy
My mother falls silent in the story, I see no 
movement in her eyes, she has left me on the bed 
and she is standing at that little table in Romania 
staring at her young pink palms, 
her feminine fingers, those manicured nails 
trained to pluck a violin, 
wondering how could these hands forsake her?
For years, the war hovers around my mother. 
For years she sits in dark rooms with eyes closed. 
I want to ask about the foreigner in the next room
but she holds one index finger to my face. 
Please, no questions.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The first time

He can barely get out of the car. 
He has to cup the rim of the door with both hands 
and pull himself to his feet, taking sucking breaths,
mewling, all bones bundled in fleece, an old ram, unsure, 
stumbling and sinking. 
He hates this stage of life, its shame, its servility, so 
I do not offer my arm.
We have not spoken in years and now he is not himself, 
and when I open the restaurant door, 
he stops at the first chair, collapses into it
as if just pulled from a plane wreck.
The man with no liver orders beer. 
I say nothing.
He used to make his own in the basement. 
One New Year's my mother threw bottles, some landed
on his head, because he was too drunk to go to the party. 
Under layers of wool, his head seems small, 
it dangles over the menu, membranes shrunken
like a raisin, juiceless and fluted. Then something 
I say charms him and his body quales with delight 
and then he winks, You're ok, kid. 
It is the first time he ever lets on that he likes me.
Unless that's not what he meant, in which case 
he has never let on. 


 My mother’s motor is always racing. 
Get going! Hurry up! She's a blitz.  
But I keep staring at the wet pavement,
I am counting cracks and maple bark
soaking in their sweet sweat, I'm far inside
the humming world
and before I know it I’m flat in the street,
a motorcycle wheel spinning on my back 
on Columbus Avenue, the driver 
kneeling and praying beside my head.
I'd run too fast across the street--
hadn't dared to keep my mother waiting.
And now I hurry her along. 
Time to go! Let's not be late! 
Now the widow stands on her one good leg, 
chain-smoking on the porch, 
coat on, doors locked, impatient for this ride.
I fold her walker, hear her grunting, hear the lowering
of her crippled self into my car, hear the nervous 
hurried motion from not wanting to keep me waiting. 
I could have touched her with my palm
I could have have said, Please take your time.

Thursday, February 13, 2014


It is a ghost my mother says 
that wakes her up that evening 
when the flames spill
in her house like water.

It is that tap, that gentle rap 
against her arm, she has no doubt, 
that wakes her to the scent 
of hell nearby. 

She wishes, wishes very hard, 
that God be somewhere, but never can 
affirm it.

And yet she swears He sent that ghost 
to her that day. 

My mother trusts in two opposing truths at once:
God really does, and really does not, exist. 
Like life, God happens only when 
all things stack up just right.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Good morning

Mornings are life at its best; you sniff 
the mints in the moist air--so clean so fresh
(if you don’t rush, if you savor)
with new growth--and you catch a raucous 
opera in the trees, the first sip of French Roast, 
all distracting you from the future
(you forget there’s even such a place)
and your desire for an easier--for an eternal--
life and yet you’re quite aware 
that somewhere a clock is ticking 
with possibility.

Friday, February 7, 2014

At the sink

My  mother chops with fury
at her kitchen sink.

I stand beside her jabbering, So
if I’m 10 that means you and daddy 
were married 11 years ago! 

Her head swivels.

Stop that stupid talk!  

(I didn’t know the truth till later.) 

For this, indeed for all her odd 
mutations, I never blame myself. 
We come from different worlds.
Hers in ruins behind her, 
mine right here in front of her.

Still I do my best to please.
Bought her a little St Theresa,
(her favorite  saint) 
with my babysitting pay.

Oh how she hates Kool-Aid stains 
on my shirt, the sound of bubbles 
popping in my mouth, that immodest 
laugh I got from her,  how my hair 
sweats on my head like seaweed

Pull that hair off your face!

Once in a rage, she hacked it off.  
For weeks, I wore headscarves to school.

That’s what you get for being so American!

It wasn’t just her mood talking.
It was the old world singing in her then.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Flight (When I was 15)

A helicopter carries my mother
to the next town where there’s a room
that can stem her bleeding disappointment.

I do not miss her gaping eyes,
how they rob me of nerve, my real self, 
or how her mouth whips the air into
storms and hail stones.

But for a time, when she returns,
chloroformed, my mother has no more 
longing for what she lacks. Her throat 
bursts at times with song, all her rancor 
and despair seems burned to ash 
in these cheery, most welcomed
holocausts and I want to throw some flowers

at her feet.